Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 51: One-Dimensional Characters
The most magical moment in writing is when you sit down with a new batch of characters, turn them loose on the page, and… they come to life. They spring up from that flat, white expanse of page, and they’re real. They’re dimensional. They’re organic. They’re compelling and interesting and wonderful. Except, of course, for when they’re not. Sometimes the magic doesn’t work out like that right off the bat. Sometimes you sit down, start typing, and what comes clunking onto the page are one-dimensional characters who are just going through the motions of the story.
The term “dimension” gets thrown around a lot among writers. We hear it and nod our heads sagely, “Oh, yes, we must have three-dimensional characters. One-dimensional characters are so dreadful.”
Honestly, it’s kind of a vague concept. “One-dimensional characters” is really just code for “bad characters.” But saying a character isn’t well written doesn’t do much to help you know how to write a better character.
Good news! That’s what we’re going to talk about today.
What Makes a Character One-Dimensional?
Let’s be clear here: in our discussion of dimensional characters, it isn’t so much the “dimension” that’s important, but rather that there’s more than one dimension. Why? Because any one dimension, by itself, exists in a vacuum. It’s like seeing the Spirit of St. Louis in the Smithsonian. Sure, it’s cool, but without the man inside it, it’s really just an tin can on wires.
Same goes for your character’s traits. You can dream up all kinds of interesting personality traits, backstory motivations, and physical quirks. But any one of them, by itself, will fail to present a fascinating and layered portrayal of your character.
It’s obvious when an author wrote a detailed character interview, in which he came up with a handful of character traits to define his characters. The problem? That’s as far as the character development got. The author repeats these characters’ “defining traits” over and over, but he never goes any deeper. The result is a cast of characters who are no more than the sum of their parts.
See Any One-Dimensional Characters Here?
For example, see what happens when we reduce the following famous characters down to one or two salient features:
- What if the most notable detail about Frodo were his hairy feet?
- What if everyone referred to Black Widow as that “red-headed chick”–just so we wouldn’t forget her most striking feature was, you know, her wig?
- What if Jane Austen told us every other chapter that “Elizabeth was pretty, but not as pretty as Jane”?
- What if Kvothe was always drawing attention to the lute-playing callouses on his fingertips?
- What if Hermione couldn’t stop talking about her dad the dentist?
These traits are important. But the authors knew better than to reduce their characters to nothing more than the sum total of these singular aspects by resting too much narrative weight upon them.
The 2 Main Reasons You Might Be Writing One-Dimensional Characters
Writers tend to fall into the trap of one-dimensional characters for two simple reasons:
1. You Don’t Know Your Character Well Enough
Sometimes authors fill out their character interviews and dive into the story, thinking they now know everything they need to know about their characters. But if all you know is how many members are in your protagonist’s extended family, what his painful backstory secret is, and what he does with his hands when he’s nervous–then you don’t know your character yet. You’re going to need to dig deeper–using the four tips in the next section.
2. You Love Your Character’s Quirks a Little Too Much
I can always tell when an author is proud of a particular character trait. After all, they only tell me about every other chapter.
Okay, your protag has luscious blonde curls. Got it. We got it the first time you mentioned it. At this point, readers are going to start feeling annoyed in the same way they would feel were they hanging out with Luscious-Blonde-Curl Girl in real life and she kept poking at her hair and glancing at them out of the corner of her eye, just to make sure they noticed how luscious and blonde and curly she is. Cue eyeroll.
https://giphy.com/embed/d2ZbxMT9PxtWozTyAs a writer, you’re entitled to love every little thing about your characters. But you must also be aware readers won’t share your enthusiasm for the little quirks. They’re there for the story, and they’re not going to appreciate what is basically the literary equivalent of you gushing over your characters on every page.
4 Quick Ways to Avoid One-Dimensional Characters
At this point, you might be wondering if I’m telling you to ditch your character’s little quirk of pulling his earlobe, or that rad two-foot cobalt mohawk you dreamed up for him, or his beautiful backstory of falling in love with his high-school sweetheart.
Not at all. These things are all great details you can use to bring your characters to life and to add dimensions.
What I am telling you is to make sure you’re handling these details correctly. To that end, here are four important tricks for turning your one-dimensional character into a three-dimensional character–without sacrificing any cool traits.
1. Create Personal Details that Move the Plot
Here’s the thing. You know a ton of stuff about your character, and no doubt you love it all. Maybe it even isfascinating in its own right.
But here’s the newsflash: readers don’t care.
Readers only care about what moves the plot and advances character development.
If your protagonist’s cleft chin doesn’t matter to the story, then don’t mention it more than once (and then only in passing, please). If you come back to it time and again, then it better be the one thing that defines this character in a plot-driving way.
Consider Anne of Green Gables and her vain abhorrence of her red hair. This is a trait that is mentioned over and over and over again throughout L.M. Montgomery’s classic series. Do readers ever get tired of it? Does it turn Anne into a one-dimensional girl with red hair?
Just the opposite. Anne’s red hair defines her. It is a symbol of her insecurities as an orphan. It moves the plot time and again–when Gilbert calls her “carrots,” when she dyes it green, etc. It adds dimension to the story because it shares interesting details about Anne’s personality and impacts the plot in important ways.
2. Only Mention Details When They Matter
Even when you’ve created a facet or quirk that’s important to your story, resist the urge to remind readers of it at every turn. Your entire story isn’t likely to be about this one trait. It should be one facet of many (one dimension of many, right?).
Repeat after me: interesting traits only matter when they matter.
Only reference aspects of your character when they function to either enlighten readers about a character’s mindset or directly move the plot forward.
In John Green’s Fault in Our Stars, the male lead has a pretty defining physical trait: he’s missing a leg. This is mentioned multiple times throughout the book, mostly as a representation of life with cancer. But it is only mentioned when it’s important.
Green doesn’t introduce Gus in every scene by having him limp or rub his leg or look meaningfully at his prosthesis. Instead, he creates a character who interacts with this facet of his body in a realistic way: thinking about it only when it interferes with his physical activity or when it is pertinent to his personal development.
3. Create Multi-Faceted Details
We’re looking for extra dimensions, remember? So don’t create a trait and leave it that. Don’t just say your character is a star athlete. Mine that little detail for interesting insights into her character. Why does she play sports? To please her parents? To prove her self-worth? To outrun the pain of an illness?
When you create a “good” trait, look for the bad in it–and vice versa. Always search out the subtext. What happens when your character’s greatest strength just happens to feed her greatest weakness?
In truth, this is the heart of all great character arcs: this inner conflict between two important traits or beliefs that are each trying to gain supremacy in the character’s life. For every force in your character’s life, create an opposing force. As fast as that, you’ve added new dimensions to this character’s existence.
Tony Stark’s seemingly vast intelligence and confidence is constantly undermined by his equally deep insecurities and immaturity. He remains one of the most-loved characters in the Marvel universe because of his complexities.
No trait lives in a vacuum; every trait has its opposing force. He’s a rude jerk, but also charming and charismatic. He’s deeply loyal, but also irrepressibly undependable. He’s recklessly brave, but also enslaved to his own fears. His traits aren’t just traits. Because they were explored in full, they became the whole story.
4. Avoid “On-the-Nose” Details
Execution is everything. You can check all three of the above steps off your list, but the most important still remains: you must present your character’s interesting traits with artistry and subtlety.
In short, don’t hit readers over the head with your character’s traits. Don’t tell readers that your character is vain about her hair, experienced a painful amputation, or is a charismatic jerk with daddy issues. Show them.
Not sure if you’ve accomplished this or not? Here’s an easy test. Go through your manuscript and look for any instance where you outright mention your character’s prominent traits (e.g., “Emily had a nose ring”). Now delete them. What happens? Ask yourself two questions:
1. Is the character’s trait still clear thanks to other instances where you’ve shown it in action?
If so, then you almost certainly don’t need those places where you also tell readers about it.
2. Does the story still make perfect sense?
If so, then you probably didn’t even need to bring up this particular trait in the first place.
Every single one of the examples I’ve referenced previously show you how to do this right. Want an example of how to do it wrong? Just think back to our good pal with the Luscious Blond Curls.
This is an incredibly important aspect of your story. You can ace just about everything else, but if your characters are coming across as one-dimensional due to an overemphasis on certain traits, then everything else will suffer. Take a look at your story and make sure you’re sharing your characters’ important traits with readers in a way that will make readers love those traits just as much as you do!